Friday, June 12, 2009

Cabin Cooking, Part 3

May 28, 2009
The free range, super duper organic chicken bought from the farmer who raised it was sitting in the fridge, defrosted, and waiting for its turn. Today was the day. The weather was PERFECT. The fire pit in front of the cabin was equipped with a hanging grill. I’d never cooked over an open fire before, and here was the chance.
I was going to try out three new things here. One, cooking over an open wood fire. Two, using a super duper free range organic chicken. And three, salting and seasoning the chicken well in advance, as advised by Cooks Illustrated, to first draw the moisture out, and then return the salt and seasonings to the interior of the meat. I’d tried the last of these once last week when cooking some steaks, and the results were fabulous – but in that case, there were no other seasonings – just salt and pepper. I tried it again a few days later with some chicken pieces on the gas grill – this time with salt, pepper and pimenton. Again, fabulous. So, I guess I knew that that technique worked. But I still wasn’t very experienced with it.

This time, the seasonings were salt, pepper, cumin, cinnamon, allspice. Part of my usual “middle eastern” mix. My day of adventuring on the Bayfield Peninsula in northern Wisconsin went quite a bit longer than I thought it would. And I didn’t get home (the cabin) until after 6 PM. Why I look at the clock or wear a watch here is beyond me. When I’m around the cabin, I don’t wear it at all, and I should cover the clock!

The first step, then, was to get the bird split and seasoned, which was a quick affair. Then, to the fire. I knew that I would need to be patient, build a fire, and wait for a good bed of coals to set. I had no idea how long that would take, but I figured at least a half hour, and more likely longer. The advantage to eating alone was that I could be patient – this activity could take as long as it needed to. A few rosemary olive triscuits and some grapes was enough to hold me over till the main event.

I built a nice roaring fire...that settled into a nice smoldering pile of wood. Still burning, still coal-like, but still, not really anything that I would cook over. I needed to give it some more oomph, so added some small pieces to build up the flame, to encourage the wood to burn. In the meantime, I prepped the rest of the meal – small red potatoes coated lightly with olive oil, salt, fresh ground pepper (new pepper mill!), rosemary and oregano – and the last of the asparagus, coated in olive oil, with just some salt and pepper. These were ready backstage, waiting for their cue.

The fire took over an hour to be ready. More like an hour and a half. Which was, I think, a good thing. It gave the salt and seasonings a chance to do their job. And it taught me some patience. And let me enjoy the evening full of wind rustling the trees and birdsong. Punctuated by short periods of activity to tinker with the fire.

Finally, finally, the fire was ready. A nice glowing hot red bed of coals. With enough wood remaining to fuel the fire for what was likely to be a half hour to an hour of cooking. My biggest fear was hanging the chicken over the fire and have it ignite and burn immediately. And then be unable to extract the bird from the blazing inferno. So I was cautious. I hung the bird (and the potatoes) a good height from the base of the fire (maybe a foot, perhaps even 18 inches) with the skin side up, to give the bird a taste of the flames and the heat. I figured this was probably too high, but I could always adjust downward. Remember, there were still flames dancing around…it wasn’t just a bed of coals (as you can see in the pic).

This seemed to work pretty well. In retrospect, I was probably too cautious. After about fifteen minutes, the amount of time I would normally flip chicken pieces on my gas grill back home, I took a look. I had certainly not burned the underside of the bird, but it was cooking nicely, although perhaps a little slowly. I flipped lowered the bird a few notches of chain, and watched to see what would happen. It took to the new heat nicely, and I let it go another ten minutes or so.

By now, it was almost 8:30. And it was still daylight! But the light was starting to fade. I flipped the bird (he he), flipped the potatoes, and added the asparagus. Waited to see if skin side down would cause fat to drip into the flame and cause a conflagration. But it did not. I let it go another half hour, continuing to lower the bird as the flames died down, and the coals were big, glowing and hot. One more flip of the bird somewhere along the way, along with a surprise phone call in the middle from Jeff to see how I was doing in the cabin, and I figured I was done.

The asparagus were clearly nice and done. A little limp, but with a teeny bit of snap remaining. The potatoes seemed done – a little firm, but done nonetheless.
The chicken – I wasn’t so sure. By now, it was darker – not dark dark, but dim, and it was hard to see what was going on. I moved around the leg joint, and it was still pretty firm – which I didn’t think was a good sign. I was eager to try it, so I piled the vittels onto a dinner plate, headed outside to my table lit by a single candle (the sky now in the final stages of light – almost 9:30!) and tried the chicken. It was tough, and clearly not done.

Fortunately, Jeff and Emily have a microwave in their rustic cabin. And I was able give it another five minutes or so of quality cooking to make finish it off. Those last five minutes were the toughest to wait out.

Back outside, back out to the plate, for the first taste, and it was a winner. The chicken was tougher than I was used to, but I think that may be the free range part. It was tasty – very tasty. I could taste the chicken and I could taste the seasonings, all the way through the bird. My mistake, if there was one, was to do all three new things at once. I would have like to have tried the super duper bird with minimal seasonings, just to see what the bird tasted like without all the help I gave it. But I didn’t, and I was happy with the outcome.

The potatoes were the perfect foil to the flavorful chicken. And the timing of appreciating the role of potato as perfect foil was perfect as well, as I had just read an essay by M.F.K Fisher on the topic. And grilled asparagus takes the natural complex flavor of the vegetable to a new height. I’ve had grilled asparagus several times now this season, and I think it is my favorite way to eat it.

So, a fabulous, slow meal. With many lessons learned. And an entire meal of leftovers remaining. The fridge now contains at least two meals of leftovers, which means I don’t think I’ll be cooking tonight. What will I do with the time?

The cabin...

No comments:

Post a Comment